A touring theatre show cancelled in Surrey last fall for its apparent use of “blackface” is set to return to the city this spring.
Turns out, in something of a misunderstanding, no character is shown in dark makeup in the current production of Im Hussein: Double Trouble, which has been re-scheduled at Surrey’s Bell Performing Arts Centre for the night of March 21.
The comedy, produced by Michigan-based Ajyal Theatrical Group, has toured across Canada, the U.S. and Australia over the past two years. The Surrey show last Nov. 2 was the only date to have been cancelled, according to Aziz Charabaty, director of the show and manager of the theatre company.
A day before the planned show time last November, a group called No Blackface Vancouver emailed its concerns about the production to Vancouver-area news outlets. The resulting publicity led Surrey Schools, operators of the Bell theatre, to cancel the show there, due to concerns about racism.
Later, a joint statement from No Blackface Vancouver and Ajyal Theatrical Group was posted to the website noblackfacevancouver.com, saying the theatre company “apologizes for the impact of using blackface” in the show “and will not use blackface in any of its future productions.”
The statement said Ajyal stopped using blackface onstage after April 2018, but online photos and videos of the actor in blackface had been taken prior to that date.
“Regretfully, as ‘Double Trouble – Im Hussein’ continued its tour, Ajyal failed to remove blackface from its promotional materials,” the statement reads. “The Ajyal Theatrical Group appreciates this opportunity to deepen their understanding and further their commitment to promote an end to racism.”
Seven actors are featured in the show, performed in both Arabic and English. Tickets for the “Vancouver” date in Surrey can be purchased at a link posted to imhussein.com.
Contacted by the Now-Leader, Charabaty said in casting for the show in March of 2018, the company “couldn’t find an actor to portray a character who is fluent in Arabic and English and who was also darker in skin,” for a specific role.
“We found this Lebanese-American guy, but the problem was when we did the shooting for the show we used darker makeup for his skin, and unfortunately that trailer was circulating around,” Charabaty said. “But after we did that, one of the technicians at a theatre here in Michigan phoned us saying this could be offensive for some people, because it seemed blackface has a very bad history in North America.
“For us Middle Easterners, we’re not familiar with that – it’s not considered offensive for us because we didn’t go through what black people went through here in North America,” Charabaty added, “and so we stopped using dark makeup on stage. But our mistake was that we kept the show trailer on the website, because we shot the play one time and it then circulated around.”
Charabaty said the character in question is not a black person, but a man of Lebanese-Liberian descent, in a plot that involves mistaken identity.
“There isn’t even a black character in the show,” Charabaty said, “it’s only that some of the characters think it’s a black person coming to give them money in this whole email scam. There’s a lot this kind of confusion in the show and side stories, and it’s very funny, sold-out everywhere.”
The show stars Najee Mondalek, who created the Im Hussein character in the 1990s and has since been featured in several comedies produced by the Ajyal theatre company. “He’s a very famous character, an Arabic version of, if you want, Dame Edna,” Charabaty said.
The cancellation of the tour’s Surrey date last fall was frustrating for the theatre company, he said.
“I understand that, because it’s at a school and I know what happened with the blackface of the prime minister of Canada some months ago,” Charabaty said. “The timing was bad, and unfortunately they cancelled the show but then they realized afterward that that was a mistake, once we told them this video was shot a long time ago. They jumped to a conclusion that was not there.
“Now they are rescheduling, have agreed to reschedule after looking at all of the materials,” Charabaty continued. “It’s all very unfortunate because, first of all, the reputation of the group suffered, and we were getting threat messages, all of that, and we also lost a lot of money because we had to reschedule.”